Q&A: GARY ‘GTHANG’ JOHNSON
‘I am really excited about making the world laugh’
A rising comedian takes us behind the scenes of the Soul Train Music Awards in Las Vegas.
When the Soul Train Music Awards aired November 29 on BET, many may not have realized that the show — which was hosted by Erykah Badu, and highlighted by special awards presented to Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds and Jill Scott — was taped weeks earlier before a live audience at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.
While the crowd was wowed by a series of stellar performances — Brandy, Fantasia, Bobby Brown, Boyz II Men and Tevin Campbell were among those who took the stage — comedian Gary “GThang” Johnson kept the audience entertained between musical acts and award presentations. A familiar face who has appeared in such television series as “Black-ish” and “The Game,” Johnson has become widely known as a rising standup comedy talent. In celebrity circles, he has made a name for himself for his relentless pursuit of selfies with A-list friends on red carpets and at other Hollywood events.
Johnson recently spoke to Las Vegas Black Image Magazine about his career and behind-the-scenes happenings at the Soul Train Music Awards.
How did you come to be involved with this year’s Soul Train Music Awards?
BET’s executive producer called and said that she wanted me to be a part of this year’s Soul Train Music Awards — to keep the crowd of 13,000 engaged while the sets were changed for the show. She said, “I know you are bigger than this, but I can’t think of anyone better than you because of your talent.” She asked if I would be willing to travel to Las Vegas for the live taping. I accepted because I knew it would be a great show, and many of my friends would be there.
What was one of your biggest challenges while hosting the pre-show warmup for the Soul Train Awards?
I didn’t have any challenges, because I know what I need to do to grab the audience’s attention — especially while the show is transitioning between sets for the BET broadcast. Keeping the audience engaged with jokes works for me, and if they weren’t feeling that I go back to having fun with the audience. I knew a lot of talented people in the audience who wanted to showcase their own talent, so I gave them that opportunity. The difference between me and other comics who might warm up for a major awards show is that the celebrity audience really knows me. So it was easy to get the celebrities involved with some impromptu performances. The audience loved it when Tank and Shanice sang from their seats. And Malcolm-Jamal Warner performed one of his original poems. If I wanted to, I could have gotten Babyface to perform while seated next to his wife and daughter.
The live Soul Train Awards audience really loved all the celebrity involvement.
Yes, they were great and I also had them laugh at themselves. I had a great time making fun of everyone and all the outfits people wore. You know black people like to put on “show-out” outfits (laughs). We will put on an outfit. I remember saying, “Forever 21 made some money today.” Everyone in the audience got the joke. It’s all about being relatable to the masses of people. Talking about “kitchen table” things that everyone can relate to and understand — such as having your cable turned off. That’s what I talk about.
Along with keeping the Soul Train Awards audience laughing, you also took time to take selfies with celebrities. Did you experience any pushback from celebrities who didn’t want to take selfies?
Oh my God, no. Most of the celebrities at the Soul Train Music Awards all know me. They are familiar with my comedy act — either from Hollywood events, comedy clubs, or our work together on television shows. I never get pushback from celebrities, because I only approach those that I know.
It was great to see the selfie photo you took with Jill Scott and her son.
Yes, we looked like a family (laughs).
What were some of the comments you received from the celebrities before they took a selfie photo with you?
Tichina Arnold and Tisha Campbell-Martin said, “You take our photos but you never tag us.” The first selfie photo I took with Oprah Winfrey, I got because she saw me perform at the NAACP Awards; and when I saw her again at another event, she said, “You know we have to get our picture.” I remember saying to people, “No one will leave until I get my photo with Oprah (laughs).” I think the only celebrity or notable that I haven’t gotten a selfie with is President Barack Obama. That’s the next photo before he leaves the White House.
Any shocking things happen behind the scenes at the Soul Train Awards?
It was shocking for me to see how nervous Bobby Brown was backstage. So, I went up to him and told him that the people wanted to see him and they will lose their minds if he didn’t go on stage. He said, “Yeah, you are right.” Jill Scott was so motivational backstage, and everyone loves and respects her. She couldn’t wait to speak to the audience. Also, something you didn’t know is that Erykah Badu came up to me and said, “You are a funny MF.” She said she was inspired by my … comedy. So, don’t be surprised to see her mixing in a little standup comedy with her music.
What was a special moment for you during the Soul Train Music Awards?
The big moment for me was during the Babyface musical tribute, when Bobby Brown, Brandy and Fantasia brought the house down. That was a moment for me — that Babyface moment.
Selfies became popular through social media. Do you think celebrities are really managing their own social media accounts, or is it done by their representatives?
I don’t know about the white celebrities, but most of the black celebrities manage their own social media accounts. They like to talk to their fans and hear what they think. If you send a message to them and they hit you back — they are responding directly to you.
What are you most passionate about?
I am really excited about making the world laugh, and also giving back to single mothers through my Single Moms Foundation. I was raised by a single mom — and I want to help other single mothers … with resources and scholarships for their children’s education. You would be surprised how paying for a single mother’s babysitting expenses can change someone’s life.